We’ve Lost the WHY in education

Janine Rees 10th October 2016


We’ve lost the WHY! We’ve lost the passion, the emotion, the joy, the fun. Increasingly the curriculum has become skills based. You learn something, you practice it, you regurgitate it for evaluation. Teachers…remember the old days when you could work towards something that your particular class were passionate about? Remember when the class were totally immersed in a negotiated topic that was age appropriate and exciting.

The children brought in every bit of paraphernalia they could find relating to the topic. Spelling lists and other activities revolved around the topic of interest. The content would grow and change depending on the students input. Excursions were organised to really experience the topic. Try organising an excursion these days, it takes you three solid days to fill out the OH&S paperwork. Then you have to convince those in charge that it is linked to the curriculum and how you will be evaluating said excursion. If the learning doesn’t help to improve ranking on the My Schools website then what is the point?!

Somewhere along the line we have forgotten why we are here. We are here for the children, not the children as a collective, but for each child, each individual child. A school should be the ultimate democracy; of the students, by the students, for the students. We have forgotten that schools are not businesses. Children are not products to be mass evaluated for public consumption, to be stamped with a pass or fail. We’ve forgotten that we are teaching CHILDREN!!! Children need to play. Children learn best through play. Children cannot be programmed to fit an allocated topic or time frame. Children are all different and our system is not working for a huge number of our children.

I can hear all those staunch traditionalists out there saying…it’s not all about fun!!! Sometimes you just have to do boring things like learn to read and write and spell and do maths and science and history and geography and phys ed and a language and technology and art/music/drama all from the age of four! No time for this fun business. No time! The government wants output. They want to measure and categorise our children within an inch of their lives.  Data, data, DATA. The be all and end all.

Over the years there have been many different “models” of teaching and learning. Think cooperative learning, whole language, inquiry based learning, project based learning, visible learning…ask any teacher; just when you learn the new terminology and procedures for one new amazing way to teach, out comes another new and improved version with updated jargon and a better system of endlessly recording data (the word data brings me to the verge of an anxiety attack).

Of course the implementation of these new better ways of teaching includes lots of inservicing and gives administrators something to do. It also directs money to exactly where it is needed…the writers of the new programs.  There is lots of money to be made spruiking new and improved methods of teaching. Teachers are dragged away from their students for large periods of time, though still expected to pump out the evaluation and data as though they had been in class full-time.

Many years ago when I was a young teacher, of perhaps six years experience, I found myself nodding off whilst at a twilight seminar (twilight seminar can be translated to working all day and then being made to work all night too). After a polite elbowing from my beautiful, experienced colleague I was deep in the new jargon of possibly the third amazing new method of teaching that the system was bestowing on me. My very wise colleague said in a whisper, “it’s easy you just exchange the old terminology for the new and do what you know works…oh and never start on the new way until you absolutely have to because nine times out of ten it is made obsolete and they bring in a new, new way for you to plan/teach/evaluate.”

The powers that be need to let teachers do their job. Trust me as a teacher that I am doing everything I can for each child in my care. I do not need to fill out 45 checklists to know a child needs help with their comprehension, social skills or problem solving. That child does not need to visit ten specialists to gain access to a small group targeting the area where they need help. Red tape is driving teachers insane. In my experience it takes around nine months to two years of  jumping through hoops to gain that all important diagnosis in order to receive funding. By then the child often has a hugely negative, damaged self concept.

This is not necessary! A child is much more than a label. People grow and change, labels stick, labels damage.  Labels usually have negative connotations. You don’t see many children being diagnosed with “Highly Likable” or “Extremely Well Organised” although what great labels to wear. We know that these qualities are some of the markers for success but a highly likable child who has spent all of their early primary school years wearing their dyslexic, ASD, or learning impaired label does not have the same experience of building a strong self-esteem as other non labelled children. In the long-term, we know from the research that many of those children will encounter debilitating mental health issues. Some will overcome having faced adversity early in life and will thrive and prosper. Why should so many children have to survive and recover from their school experience. Here’s a label I’d happily use: unique.

We have to face facts. The education system is stuck in the past. It is damaging many children. It is time for a radical shake up. It is time for every child to receive a fair, quality education. It is time for reform in our schools. One child damaged in our system is one child too many.

What do we do to fix the problems that the traditional or mainstream schools face? We need to start from the ground up. Ask the students what they need. Listen to the parents, the parents are the ones who know their child best. Let the teachers collaborate and advocate for their students. In order for the teachers to be the facilitators of learning they need autonomy to cater to individual needs. Put money towards access to more experts in our schools; more psychologists, more optometrists, more occupational and speech therapists. Early intervention is absolutely imperative.

A year level based curriculum does not work, end of story. Schools can use the National Curriculum as a guideline, a continuum of learning if you like, to be worked through at an appropriate rate for each child. One teacher standing in front of twenty-eight children sprouting information is antiquated, yet seems to still be the norm. In this world of technology it is absolutely possible for every child in the school to be working at their own level. Montessori have been doing it for over a hundred years and still mainstream education have not caught on. Developing a healthy self-esteem should be paramount. A true child centred curriculum does not impose rigid testing and programming. Many children at a very young age are coming away from their early education believing they are less than; not good enough; hopeless.

We need to work from a strengths based model rather than a deficit model. To do this we need teachers to be working to their strengths in primary schools. It does not work well having one teacher teaching eight subjects. I’m sure we can all remember those teachers who were passionate about what they taught, how they came alive when they taught their area of interest and then their eyes glazed back over when needing to teach an area they were not really interested in or skilled at.

We need smaller ratios of teachers to students.  Last year I taught 29 children in year two, my daughter had 32 children in her final two years of primary school. These are large classes. As a teacher I know it takes the first term each year to get to know the needs of the large number of children in your class. If this happens every year then your child wastes seven terms throughout their primary education – at ten weeks a term that is roughly seventy weeks that could be better spent. If your child remained with a teacher for an extended period, say three or more years imagine the difference it would make.  This teacher could become a close and trusted mentor in your child’s life. It takes a village, right?

A child would move around between various teachers in large, appropriately designed, purpose-built settings seeking out those who can help them with targeted learning goals. If they are ready to learn how to use apostrophes they’d seek out Ms Fantastic-Punctuation. Never again would twenty-nine children be made to sit through a lesson and three worksheets on apostrophes. No more one-size-fits-all fixed classes for the year but children self-directing their learning, guided and supported by trusted mentors/teachers.

Most importantly school should be about discovering your strengths, your passions. The primary years should be filled with many and varied experiences, not worksheets. Experiences should be meaningful, real, purposeful. The children should play the major role in designing their learning so as to develop the intrinsic motivation to learn that every child is born with. Ignite the flame don’t extinguish it!

It is possible to achieve all of these things without spending an extra cent. Massive restructuring with minimum cost. The ingredients for success are a community of students, parents and teachers who are willing to share, listen and collaborate. If you’d like to discuss ways in which your school can benefit all of its students then contact Sparkt and we would be more than happy to discuss helping you to implement reform in your school.

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